The grape behind red burgundy is tricky to grow but the results can be magical.
No other red wine has the aromatic complexity and seductive charm of good pinot noir, especially when grown on the near-priceless slopes of Burgundy’s Côte d’or.
The best of these wines show an exquisite combination of haunting perfumes, red fruit and mineral flavours that act like a taster’s road map to the vineyards in which their grapes are grown. “Sex in a glass!” is how American master sommelier Madeline Triffon famously described pinot noir; which also played the starring role (to the detriment of the much-maligned merlot) in Alexander Payne’s 2004 wine comedy Sideways.
If the pleasure that fine pinot gives to wine drinkers is difficult to measure, the challenges it presents to winemakers are often considerable. “God made cabernet sauvignon whereas the devil made pinot noir,” declared trailblazing Californian viticulturist André Tchelistcheff, who understood just how awkward pinot can be.
Even before their grapes appear, pinot vines are sensitive to both frost – a frequent hazard in Burgundy – and wind. Vines must be well pruned to avoid eventual over-cropping, which can prevent the berries from reaching full maturity. Grapes grow in tightly clustered bunches, which are prone to rot; and even once picked, pinot must be vinified with careful temperature control and meticulous yeast selection. The ripeness window is also a small one: pick too early and the wine will show a sour, stalky character, while overripe grapes can give cooked, jammy flavours.
Despite its caprices, pinot noir’s winemaking pedigree is an ancient one; it is thought to be closely related to the vines that once grew wild in the forests of Europe before viticulture was established. The pinot vine is prone to mutation, existing in noir, blanc and gris incarnations. Pinot blanc generally makes fullish, food-friendly dry white wines, especially in Alsace, while pinot gris (with its pink berries but clear juice) makes some of Alsace’s best late-harvest sweet whites – a world away from the mass-market off-dry pinot grigio for which the grape is better known. Pinot has also been a prodigious parent, with direct offspring that include Burgundy’s white chardonnay and the red gamay grape of Beaujolais. The Rhône Valley’s syrah and viognier are also descended from pinot.
Wherever pinot noir originated, its undisputed home turf is in the Côte d’or – Burgundy’s ‘golden slope’, a 60-kilometre ridge on which the world’s most valuable vineyards are planted. These east-facing, clay-limestone slopes have been studied since the 12th century, when Benedictine and Cistercian monks began to delimit individual vineyard parcels. Quite why these soils produce such breathtaking chardonnays and pinot noirs will perhaps always remain a mystery, but their fame is such that the very best – from the superlative Grand Cru vineyards – have become the preserve of international investors and the super-rich.
Even within the Côte d’or, the difference between the pinots in neighbouring villages, even adjoining vineyards, can be startling. The village of Pommard, just south-west of Beaune, for example, makes robust, earthy reds, while Volnay next door is renowned for its more delicate, ‘feminine’ wines. To the north of Beaune, in the area known as the Côte de Nuits, pinot noir reaches its apogee in the vineyards of Vosne-romanée, where estates are so secretive that even wine journalists are lucky to visit and taste.
At the northern and southern fringes of the Côte d’or, in Marsannay-la-côte and Santenay respectively, pinot noir makes lighter, more affordable wines than in the more famous communes; and the vineyard signs advertising dégustations are correspondingly more plentiful. In the wooded hills above the Côte d’or, the cooler vineyards of the Hautes-côtes make leaner reds that can offer a cheaper glimpse of the greatness more often associated with the slopes below. To the south of the Côte d’or, on the Côte Chalonnaise, pinot noir makes toothsome reds in the hands of star producers such as Domaine Joblot in Givry.
Outside of Burgundy, pinot noir is best known for its role in champagne, where it joins chardonnay and the fruity red pinot meunier – itself a complex genetic mutation of pinot noir – in blends. In the Grand Cru villages on the southern slopes of Champagne’s Montagne de Reims – most notably Bouzy and Aÿ – still red wines are also made from pinot noir. Pale in colour and full of the scents of cherries and raspberries, these Coteaux Champenois reds are surprisingly moreish, but must sell for similar prices to champagne, to justify their use of such valuable vineyards.
Elsewhere in north-eastern France, pinot noir makes sappy reds that are sometimes reminiscent of lighter-bodied burgundy, without the price tag. In the hills of Jura, to the east of Burgundy, and in Alsace, to the north, pinot noir produces wines that are often unfashionably pale, but are deliciously thirst-quenching food partners on warm days. Sancerre Rouge is also made from pinot noir, with producers such as Alphonse Mellot and Domaine Vacheron crafting serious oak-aged reds from the grape. Even in Lorraine, Alsace’s littleknown viticultural sister region, vignerons including Norbert Molozay of Château de Vaux grow surprisingly complex pinots. And at the opposite end of France, in the foothills of the Pyrénées, Jean-louis Denois has pioneered some of France’s most exciting pinot noir plantings in the Upper Aude Valley.
Dominic Rippon has many years’ experience in the wine trade, both in the UK and France, and now runs the wine merchant business Strictly Wine.
LEFT: Vigneron Norbert Molozay of Château de Vaux in Lorraine; BELOW: Pinot noir vines near Ambonnay in the Montagne de Reims; FACING PAGE FROM TOP: Vineyards in Santenay in the Côte d’or, home of the pinot noir grape